Consumption, Cholera, and Creativity: How a Pandemic Can Inspire Art

As much of the world is behind closed doors, and practicing social distancing, one wonders how COVID-19 will affect 21st century culture. Beyond, perhaps, the permanent cessation of the needless handshake, how will artists come to describe and illustrate the fear, isolation, the heroism — and, yes, even the boredom — of this terrible time? Over two hundred years ago, cholera and consumption were similarly on the minds of many. Outbreaks in the nineteenth century were constant reminders of the frailty of life, and the ever-present threat of death. While a consideration of how writers of that period dealt with disease may not necessarily shed light on what’s to come from us (in this quite different, digital age), it’s undeniable that creativity can come from all kinds of calamity. Even a pandemic.

By the dawn of the 19th century, tuberculosis, or consumption, had killed one in seven people. And severe outbreaks of cholera occured seven times over that span of one-hundred years. John Keats died from tuberculosis in 1820. Tchaikovsky, of cholera, in 1893 (though some say suicide). Poets, musicians, painters, sculptors. The lists of famous people who have died from tuberculosis, and those who succumbed to cholera, are lengthy. The Brontë sisters. Anton Chekhov, and many others. Pandemics kill artists, but a pandemic can inspire art.

Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) was written as the poet became increasingly aware that he was afflicted with consumption. Key symptoms of it, like “the weariness, the fever and the fret” has only one outcome:

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies

Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber
Henry Kirke White painted by Thomas Barber

Even more direct, a lesser known poet of the Romantic period, Henry Kirke White (1785 –1806), who suffered the same fate as Keats years earlier, went so far as to come out and directly dedicate a poem “To Consumption.” There, he addresses the disease, accepting its embrace as he realizes he soon will succumb to the affliction.

Gently, most gently, on thy victim’s head
Consumption, lay thine hand! Let me decay
Like the expiring lamp, unseen away,
And softly go to slumber with the dead.

Which he did. On October 19, 1806.

Edward Munch's "The Sick Child"
Edvard Munch’s “The Sick Child”

One scholar, Clark Lawlor, has written a whole treatise on the subject of “Consumption and Literature.” Then there’s Roger Platizky’s journal article on “Tennyson and Cholera.” It would seem there’s no shortage of critical essays on ways both consumption and cholera affected artists of the nineteenth century.

And beyond poetry, one need only look at Edvard Munch’s series of works begun in 1885 marking the death of his sister from tuberculosis to understand that the only way some people can deal with grief following great affliction is to capture those feelings in art.

Need all feelings in times of disease, however, be those of sadness and grief? Those who lost their lives, or lost family and friends to consumption and cholera, certainly felt terrible sorrow. Yet even among those who lost, like Edgar Allan Poe, death (of his wife Virginia to consuption in 1847) inspired beauty; with Poe, it’s in the form of his Annabel Lee (written in 1849). An idealized woman. Beauty personified. Verdi, in his La traviata (1853), sees beauty in the death of its heroine, Violetta, who — in the final stages of TB — sacrifices all for love. And the aforementioned Keats, with his brother Tom dying of the disease in 1817, writes  “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” There, the poet celebrates the permanence of beauty and art in the face of frail humanity.  Upon seeing the classical Greek marble sculptures, Keats is inspired that their wonder…

…mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Something great, like art, can be celebrate beauty, even in the “wasting” of life.

What will artists of this third decade of the twenty-first century produce during — and after — this coronoavirus pandemic? Will we see great art, music, and literature addressing our planet’s collective hopes and fears? Are there those stuck at home, in self-quarantine or practicing social distancing right now that will turn their experience — our experience — into something special? Will it be sad, or hopeful?

Some artists, like former R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, have already begun to address our pandemic. In “No Time for Love Like Now,” Stipe sings:

Where did this all begin to change?
the lockdown memories can’t sustain

lyrics that make us consider our situation and question if our memories of what was normal can survive the lockdown of our own self-isolation.

To our artists, we ask for help in figuring out what will be the new normal. Within their work, perhaps we can find release from — even make our peace with — anxiety about what is, and grieving for what used to be. Even during a pandemic, creativity can thrive. It is undeniable that human beings can find hope and beauty everywhere, even in the face of depression and death.

Let us hope that our trying times find us with more of the former, and less of the latter.

And not just thousands of TikToks.

The Other Spanish Dracula: Enrique Rambal

Enrique Rambal as Dracula
Enrique Rambal as Dracula

Of the 200+ films and dozens of plays adapting Dracula, one relatively lost to history is Spanish actor Enrique Rambal’s 1942 stage production. A little over a decade after Universal’s successful and influential Spanish-language Drácula starring Carlos Villarías, Rambal, a well-known innovator in the area of stage production, tackled the novel for stage. Using many elements that can be traced back to the Deane / Balderston stageplay of 1924 (upon which the Universal movies are based),  Rambal’s version is particularly notable for its use of numerous screen paintings that filled the stage, as well as dramatic stage effects (not to mention the addition of an opening in Translvania at Dracula’s castle which was absent from the Deane / Balderston script but was essential to the novel). Playing the role of Dracula was Rambal himself, in rather unusually grotesque makeup that was more Nosferatu crossed with a kabuki mask than Bela Lugosi in his tie and tails.

Enrique Rambal, by Manuel Tovar, in La Novela Teatral (March 30, 1919)

Performing in Franco’s Spain must not have been easy for an artist, yet Rambal seemed to have little trouble with the government. Other than having to cut back on the cleavage shown in his actresses’ costumes, Spain’s censors had no problem with his production. He traveled freely outside of Madrid, and performed all over Spain, for his was a popular theatre — not one with pretensions of high art or subverting culture. Indeed, he is not written about much at all among literary historians. A 2012 article by Ferrer Gimeno (downloadable as a Spanish PDF) published in the now defunct Stycomithia magazine (from the University of Valencia) is the best, and perhaps only source for detailed information about the play. It is the document upon which I take most of my summary and images.

Poster for Enrique Rambal's Dracula
Poster for Enrique Rambal’s Dracula

The play’s translated title is comically specific: Dracula, a Free Adaptation of the Fantastic Novel of the Same Title, by Bram Stocker, Made in a Prologue and Two Parts, Divided into Twenty-Five Tables.  Rambal apparently had quite elaborate paintings made for each of the sections (or tables), with sensational titles on each (among them “Night of horror!”, “The Shadow That Kills”, “They come out of the graves!” and “Pleasure of eternity”!). These backdrops could act like curtains to open, rise, and separate, allowing characters to move in front of and behind them to heighten the drama.

There were 33 characters, with Rambal’s own son playing Jonatán Harker. His daughter, Enriqueta Rambal Sacía, was Lucía Westenra. Indeed, many of Rambal’s productions used his son and daughter, along with a troupe that regularly performed Rambal’s work.

Sound effects and stage tricks played a large part in establishing atmosphere. There were screaming animals, crashing coffin lids, and creepy off-stage voices. Both a pressurized water tube dotted with tiny holes, and a combustion engine that belched smoke, provided mist and swirls of smoke.

Rambal’s combustion engine used to make smoke for his production of Dracula

To add to the suspense, actors came and went through hatches and trap doors called “English traps” (interestingly enough referred to in the English theater as the “vampire door” or “grave trap”). Gas lamps served as “magic lanterns,” projecting light that made scenes all the more theatrical.

Unfortunately, all we have are a few photos of Rambal in his makeup, a picture of the combustion engine, and descriptions of the play from Gimeno’s article.

Still, Rambal’s production should be remembered, if only for its novelty. It is strangely absent from many a record of adaptions of Dracula, and even the vast expanse of the internet bears little trace of it. A decade after Universal’s seminal film, and a decade before Hammer Studios would reinvent the character, Rambal brought to Spain a unique interpretation the deserves its place in the history of adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel. Perhaps one lone blog entry can help make that happen.



By Christopher Michael Davis